R. Merritt

To begin the discussion on this topic, what is the Jones Act? The Jones Act was ratified and put into effect in 1920 and makes it so that any goods that are transported between U.S. ports must be carried on American-constructed and American-owned ships that fly the U.S. flag with crews consisting of American citizens or permanent residents (Observer, 2022). The law exists to protect national security while ensuring and guaranteeing that American interests and the maritime industry are supported by federal law (CATO Institute, 1). The Jones Act has continually had a strong backing from those dedicated to the issues the law serves to protect–namely domestic shipyards and maritime labor unions (CATO Institute, 1). Equally significant is the fact that Puerto Rico’s current Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón is a vocal supporter of the law as it relates to these protections. In 2022, she was awarded the American Maritime Champion Award by the American Maritime Partnership for her continued commitment to the US’s maritime industry through supporting the Jones Act (American Maritime Partnership, 2022). The support of union labor by the Biden administration represents a challenge while it attempts to balance union support and acknowledging Puerto Rico’s populus and their demands to amend the Act (Observer, 2022).

How do unions keep the Jones Act in effect despite the increased pushback? Among the unions that do support the Jones Act, some include the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Inland Boatmen’s Union. As mentioned before, the Jones Act was created to support national security in the form of strengthening the US’s Navy and keeping the maritime industry healthy—removing the protections the Jones Act provides, these unions and others argue, would result in significant job losses (The Borgen Project, 2017). Despite these concerns regarding job loss and weakened national security if the law is repealed, the maritime industry has shrunk greatly on its own even with the Jones Act remaining in place. Between 1946 and 2007, 200,000 jobs and 60 shipyards were lost within the American maritime industry (The Borgen Project, 2017). What’s more, the Jones Act costs the federal government $2.8 billion per year according to 1995 findings from the International Trade Commission (The Borgen Project, 2017). With all these losses, the American maritime industry would have shrunk with or without the Jones Act in place (The Borgen Project, 2017).

Delving further into the implications of the Jones Act on Puerto Rico itself, the stipulations within the Jones Act mean that any foreign flagged ships that need to dock at a port in Puerto Rico need to first be flagged at a mainland U.S. port before going to Puerto Rico. No foreign-flagged ship can go directly to a Puerto Rican port to drop off or load goods (CATO Institute, 1). This results in prices for imported goods being higher than they would have already been if they were brought directly to this island. For example, the Jones Act raises the cost of shipping by $568.9 million and overall prices on the island by $1.1 billion (CATO Institute, 2). The Jones Act can be waived in emergencies where certain types of supplies are urgently required (such as liquefied natural gas imports following Hurricane Fiona’s landfall in 2022 [Reason Foundation, 2022]), but the law ultimately comes back into effect following said waiver. Despite efforts to increase self-sustainability regarding farming and food production, Puerto Rico still imports 85% of its food. Additionally, all fuel to the island has to be imported (Reason Foundation, 2022). In Puerto Rico, where 41.7% of the population lives in poverty as of 2023 (US Census Bureau, 2023), these high costs inhibit much of the population from purchasing necessities as is needed on a regular basis.

The Jones Act’s effects are complex in nature and there exist both strong cases of support for it and criticism against it. While the law can be waived in extreme cases, these waivers are limited in duration and cannot be extended in most cases (Reason Foundation, 2022). With Puerto Rico’s complicated status and relative isolation, the Jones Act will continue to hinder life in Puerto Rico in a variety of ways, particularly with regards to disaster relief and the high prices of imported goods (CATO Institute, 2).



American Maritime Partnership: https://www.americanmaritimepartnership.com/press-releases/amp-names-rep-jenniffer-gonzalez-colon-champion-of-maritime-for-her-commitment-to-american-maritime/

The Borgen Project: https://borgenproject.org/labor-unions-support-the-jones-act/

CATO Institute, 1: https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/jones-act-burden-america-can-no-longer-bear

CATO Institute, 2: https://www.cato.org/blog/new-reports-detail-jones-acts-cost-puerto-rico

Observer: https://observer.com/2022/09/a-century-old-law-supported-by-unions-is-blamed-for-holding-up-vital-supplies-for-puerto-rico/

Reason Foundation: https://reason.org/commentary/biden-administration-grants-puerto-rico-a-waiver-but-the-jones-act-should-be-repealed/

United States Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/PR/PST045223

Posted March 28, 2024